Gallagher complaint over 'Frontline' tweet upheld


The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) has upheld a complaint by presidential candidate Seán Gallagher against RTÉ over the broadcast of a tweet that damaged his election campaign.

The authority found in favour of Mr Gallagher in a four-page ruling delivered to the parties today over the tweet read out on The Frontline programme.

The decision was made by the compliance committee of the BAI, which is chaired by professor Chris Morash.

RTÉ will now have to broadcast an announcement detailing the ruling of the BAI compliance shortly.  The broadcaster's director general Noel Curan this evening apologised to Mr Gallagher.

RTÉ chairperson Tom Savage said the board would meet on Friday morning to discuss the findings.

“I accept the BAI’s thoroughly considered decisions which merit close attention. The Board of RTÉ will meet for that purpose on Friday morning. We will deliberate on the findings and discuss the matter in full,” he said this evening.

The committee found that the broadcast of a tweet incorrectly attributed to the official Martin McGuinness for President twitter account was unfair to Mr Gallagher.

Rejecting the arguments put forward by the broadcaster, it said these did not validate the inclusion in the programme of unverified information from a source that was wrongly accredited by presenter Pat Kenny. “In addition, there were no apparent efforts made by the broadcaster to verify the source and accuracy of the content of the tweet at the centre of the complaint.”

The tweet read out by the presenter falsely purported to be from the campaign team of Sinn Féin candidate Martin McGuinness.

Mr Gallagher had pointed out that a tweet from the real McGuinness campaign, which made it clear that it was not the source of the earlier bogus tweet, was received several minutes later. He claimed no attempt was made by The Frontline to convey this information to its audience, even though the second tweet arrived 28 minutes before the end of the programme.

The committee said Mr Kenny did not take the opportunity to verify the content or provenance of the tweet with Mr McGuinness during the debate. It also noted that information was available during the programme that clarified that the tweet account at the centre of the complaint was not from an official Sinn Féin twitter account.

The failure to provide clarification on the provenance of the tweet was unfair to the complainant, it said.

While RTÉ argued that the content of the tweet turned out to be correct, the committee said it did not believe the subsequent truth or otherwise of content removed the broadcaster’s basic responsibility to verify its content and provenance.

In the absence of any meaningful verification, RTÉ had no way of knowing that the content of the tweet was correct at the time of broadcast.

The committee said the Today with Pat Kenny radio show broadcast the following day, on which Mr Gallagher appeared, exacerbated the unfairness of The Frontline debate by failing to include any clarification regarding the tweet.

However, the committee said there was no evidence that RTÉ, The Frontline or Mr Kenny deliberately concealed information about the tweets, as Mr Gallagher had alleged, and there was no evidence for questioning their bona fides.

Mr Gallagher said he welcomed the BAI decision. “It confirms my view that there was an institutional failure by RTÉ. This public service broadcaster introduced, in a grossly unfair manner, a controversial and bogus tweet into a crucial and live presidential election debate, just days before polling, without first having verified where it came from, and whether it was in fact genuine.”

Mr Gallagher said the broadcaster compounded this unfairness by withholding a corrective tweet received 26 minutes before the end of the programme.

In a statement this evening, Mr Curran apologised to Mr Gallagher. “We acknowledge that we made mistakes in the course of this programme; we should have verified the origin of the tweet, and should have broadcast the fact that its provenance was in question. I apologise to Mr Gallagher on behalf of RTÉ regarding these mistakes,” he said.

He said a new set of RTÉ programme makers’ guidelines are currently being finalised. These, he said, “will reinforce protocols around authentication of social media and other inputs offered to programmes”.

Mr Gallagher's complaint related to the highly charged debate on The Frontline on October 24th, three days before polling day.

Earlier in the debate, Sinn Féin candidate Martin McGuinness claimed Mr Gallagher had called to a businessman’s house to collect a €5,000 cheque for Fianna Fáil. Mr Gallagher had denied this, and the debate moved to other topics.

At 10.39pm, a tweet was posted on the account @mcguinness4pres. This was not the official McGuinness campaign username, which was @Martin4Prez2011. The tweet stated: “The man that Gallagher took the cheque from will be at a press conference tomorrow”.

At 10.49pm, immediately after an advertising break, Pat Kenny addressed Mr Gallagher, saying on the “Martin McGuinness for President” account “Sinn Féin are saying they are going to produce the man who gave you the cheque for five grand”.

His question disconcerted Mr Gallagher, who stumbled in his answer and was jeered by the studio audience.

At 11.02pm, a tweet came from the official McGuinness campaign account stating:  “We have made no comment on the Gallagher FF donation issue”.